STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Saquon Barkley leans forward, elbows on his knees, in an office at Penn State’s Lasch Football Building. Wearing a gray, long-sleeved pullover and blue shorts, he waits to watch a video of one of the great plays of the 2016 football season: his zigging and zagging 79-yard touchdown run in the Rose Bowl against Southern California.
“I’ve seen it a lot,” he said. “It’s been tweeted at me a lot of times.”
The video starts, a copy of the Rose Bowl telecast with ESPN’s Chris Fowler at the mike:
Barkley trying to bounce it … and he escapes. Saquon Barkley in the clear … still going … Say-Quon Barkley, all the way to the end zone … Electric. 79 yards.
It’s a brilliant and memorable run. With more than 15.7 million viewers watching, the most for a televised bowl contest last season other than the national championship game, those 16 seconds – and 118 yards as counted by ESPN – launched Barkley front and center as a prime candidate for the 2017 Heisman Trophy.
“I don’t really get too caught up in that, the Heisman hype, and getting compared with other elite athletes and stuff like that,” he said. “My mind-set is really just focusing on taking it day by day and step by step, focusing on the team, trying to improve every single day as a player and a person and as a leader of this team. Everything else will take care of itself.”
With Barkley at the forefront of last year’s surprising season in which the Nittany Lions went 11-3 and won a Big Ten championship, and returning this season bigger (230 pounds), faster (4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash), and stronger (460-pound bench press, 650-pound squat), the attention on him will be extensive, and difficult to ignore.
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead discussed calling the home-run play at halftime, noting that USC was in a defensive formation that could be susceptible to an inside run. So he decided to go with it as the Nittany Lions lined up for their first play from scrimmage in the second half.
“We wanted to get a play where we could wash the whole front down, pull our tackle around, and kick the end out,” he said. “We wanted it to actually hit up inside the block.”
The tackle, Ryan Bates, made his block, but Barkley saw more daylight to the outside and took off that way, outrunning safety Marvell Tell III to the corner. Now the chase was on, or, as Moorhead said, “Saquon doing Saquon things.”
“Bates did a good job of finishing,” Barkley said. “So then I got outside. I got one-on-one with a guy [Tell] and I felt I could get outside. I got outside of him and then I got one-on-one with one of their guys [corner Ajene Harris] and I felt like I was able to get inside of him. Then your body kind of takes over. I was able to make a couple of jump cuts to get back across the field.”
Barkley made his final cut at his own 45, and he was in the Trojans’ secondary running diagonally to the left.
In addition to size, speed, and strength, Barkley has an uncanny feel for the game, with an ability to make the right cut more often than not. The work he does in the film room helps.
“A lot of the vision and stuff like that comes from mental preparation, really watching film, understanding defense and understanding what your offense is going to do,” he said. “If you have a real understanding of what your O-line is doing, then you feel more comfortable making that cut. It’s kind of just a feel thing. You just react to what you feel is right.”
Confidence also plays a role, and that’s something Barkley didn’t have very much of early in his career at Whitehall High School outside of Allentown. He said “everyone hits that stage” of losing some confidence at a young age, but his mother and father, Tonya Johnson and Alibay Barkley, stayed with it and got him to believe in himself.
This belief flourished in his junior season, 2013, when he rushed for 1,506 yards and 27 touchdowns. He already had committed to Rutgers, but coaches suddenly were descending on the Lehigh Valley to take another look at Barkley. James Franklin came in late, having taken the Penn State job in January 2014, and went right to work on the rapidly developing young star.
“Coach Franklin called me and basically told me he’s not allowing me to go to Rutgers,” Barkley recalled. “I had already visited Penn State before, so I knew what Penn State was about. I came here another time for a junior day and just listened to Coach Franklin. I wanted to hear him out.”
The coach’s pitch worked. Barkley flipped to Penn State a little more than a month after Franklin took over.
Barkley in a nutshell
As Barkley cut to the left and into the clear in the USC secondary, he already had received blocks from his wide receivers, DaeSean Hamilton and DeAndre Thompkins. He knew that all-American corner Adoree Jackson would try to chase him down before he reached the goal line, but wideout Chris Godwin bumped him with his shoulder to make sure Barkley completed the sensational run.
“That is Saquon Barkley in a nutshell on one play,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.
“When you get back across the field like that, you’ve got to finish, and my mind-set was just finding a way to get into the end zone,” Barkley said. “All the guys did a really good job – Hammy, DeAndre, especially Chris blocking downfield for me and helping me be able to finish the play.”
The Penn State section resembled a continuing white wave celebrating the touchdown – the second of four TDs that the Lions would score on four consecutive plays from scrimmage by the team. Barkley’s run gave them a 28-27 lead, and although the margin would grow to 14 points by the end of the third, the Trojans came back and kicked a field goal at the final gun to win, 52-49.
“I really don’t focus on the run,” Barkley said glumly. “We didn’t win the game.”
The expectations are sky-high for Barkley, and for the Nittany Lions, in the new season. With a year of Moorhead’s potent offense under his belt, Barkley will have new ways of getting the ball in open space, catching it out of the backfield, and running behind an improved offensive line.
But that’s just part of his contribution. He continues to impress his coaches and teammates with his commitment. Franklin has said of him on more than one occasion, “When your best player is one of your best character guys, your team has a chance to do special things.”
“Having him say that about me, that means a lot and puts a smile on your face,” Barkley said. “But him making that comment is like hearing someone saying Heisman or saying you’re top 10. You can’t get too caught up in it. If I get too caught up in that, I’m not doing what he says I’m doing.
“If I feel satisfied, then I’m not pushing myself to try to be the hardest worker, try to do all the little things right, and try to set an example for the guys on the team.”
Barkley rushed for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns last season. If he can repeat those numbers in 2017, he would become Penn State’s all-time leading rusher – the first to reach 4,000 yards in a career – and the program record-holder for rushing touchdowns and total TDs.
That’s a lot for three years. Then, however, the Barkley era is likely to be over. He’s in the top 10 of most 2018 mock NFL drafts at this early stage, and the NFL money will more than help him help his family.
His thought process, for now, isn’t there yet.
“The best way I can answer that question [about moving on] is, I can’t predict the future,” he said. “A lot of things can happen in that time. I came to college focusing on trying to grow as a person and a player. I want to achieve my degree. I can’t say that, ‘OK, I’m going to leave for the NFL.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen in six months.
“So it sounds like the cliche answer to say, but I’m truly not really focused or really paying attention to that. If I focus on myself and focus on the team and focus on being a better player and all those things, everything else will take care of itself.”
As in his previous two seasons, Barkley will no doubt fill the highlight reels again starting next month with his play on the field. Enjoy them while you can.